cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension during our service of Morning Prayer, the second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20, 2013.

Psalm 36:5-10
Isaiah 62:1-5
Canticle 11
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

This is the collect for the commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., celebrated either on April 4 or January 15:
“Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last; Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
The collect uses the term prophet to describe the Rev. Dr. King because King filled in the twentieth century the function which in ancient Israel was held by the prophets: acting as an intermediary between God and the people.

Isaiah Ben-Amoz was a Jewish prophet who preached in Judah in the eighth-century B.C.E., but the book of the Bible which bears his name was probably written by many different authors over the course of two centuries. Scholars divide the book into three main parts: the first consisting of Isaiah’s prophecies and material added by his 7th-century disciples, the second addressing the Jews of the Babylonian Captivity in the mid-sixth century.

The third portion, known as Trito-Isaiah or simply Third Isaiah, is the portion from which our first lesson and canticle were taken. It is a collection of poetry, probably itself composed by multiple authors shortly following the return from the exile of the Babylon Captivity, prophesying “the restoration of the nation of Israel and a new creation in God's glorious future kingdom” (Wikipedia) to “a Jewish community in late sixth century Judah struggling to rebuild itself” (The Inclusive Bible).

The eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem was one of hope for the Jews who had witnessed the destruction of their beloved, sacred city and its temple. It would be a chance for the sovereign authority of the Jewish God to be established once and for all and for both the righteous and the wicked to receive their just desserts. This, of course, is one of the functions of a prophet: not only to relay God’s displeasure with the inequities of the people, but also to provide them with a motivating vision of the fulfillment of God’s Will. For the Rev. Dr. King, this motivating vision was of course his “dream” of a nation where children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, a world marked by racial reconciliation, economic justice, and active peacemaking. For the Jewish prophets of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., it was the New Jerusalem.

In a Hebrew Scripture reading this morning, the biblical author(s) use the image of a bride to describe the New Jerusalem and its special relationship with God the Creator and Ruler. For us Christians, we cannot but help but view this image through the lens of our traditional understanding of the Church--one, holy, catholic, and apostolic--as the Bride of Christ. For we remember that just as in the biblical conception of marriage the spouses leave their parents to cleave to each other and become one flesh, so too has Christ, in the mystery of the Incarnation, come to us from God the Parent to cleave to humanity and become one flesh with us.

We are the Bride of Christ. We are the New Jerusalem--right here, at the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City. We are the builders of the Kin-dom of God.

It is of course true that without the amazing free gift of God’s grace, we are utterly powerless in the face of sin and death. This is simply good theology, the clear and constant teaching of the Church across the ages, from Saint Augustine of Hippo to the Protestant Reformers. But it is just as true that with the free gift of grace we are empowered to act as God’s agents in building the kindom. This, too, is the clear and constant teaching of Mother Church. Saint Augustine wrote an entire book called De Civitate Dei, or The City of God, in which he put forth both a theology of history and a challenge to human society to pursue what he called the City of Heaven.

As St. Teresa of Avila famously wrote, Ours are the eyes with which Jesus looks compassion on this world, Ours are the feet with which Jesus walks to do good, Ours are the hands, with which Jesus blesses all the world.

We are the hands and feet of Jesus because we have been mystically incorporated into the very Body of Christ through the sacrament of our baptism. Just as Jesus transformed that water into wine back at the wedding in Cana, so too has Jesus transformed us into new wine, to go out and get the world drunk on the good news that Jesus is Lord.

Because that is what the power of the Holy Spirit is like. Remember the disciples on the day of Pentecost: the crowd saw them, speaking in tongues, and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

This is a message of hope, but it is also a message of awesome responsibility. What does it mean for us who have been taught by Jesus to pray for the coming of God’s kindom, that the will of God may be done on Earth, to put our actions behind those prayers? To not only recite those words, but to live them? To heed the prophetic voices of our generations--and to be those voices for others? To work towards a world marked by peace and by justice--instead of war and division? To receive the love of Christ, our collective spouse, and to transmit it to each other?

During this time of transition, it is an especially good time for us to reflect on what, precisely, is the role the Spirit has in mind for us in the coming of the kindom of God. What is our congregational charism?

Whatever it is, I know one thing: so long as we are always seek to be motivated by love, we cannot go far wrong. As I was driving home from work this morning, I was listening to On Being on NPR and thinking to myself, “I really need to come up with a conclusion to the sermon I’m giving in two and a half hours.”

On the radio program, poet Elizabeth Alexander read from the poem she had read at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. “What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance,” she read.

And that’s pretty much what it comes down to, isn’t it? One might find Alexander’s poetry trite--I remember not being particularly impressed with it when I heard it back in 2009--but it’s impossible to disagree with the sentiment. Jesus’ resistance notwithstanding, perhaps the Blessed Virgin Mother knew what she was doing when she caused the ministry of Jesus to be initiated at that wedding in Cana, amidst a ritual focused on love and covenant. Because the reasons the image of the Bride of God has remained so powerful across the ages doesn’t have anything to do with notions of gender or sexual orientation, with headship or submission. It’s about love and covenant.

Amen.
cjbanning: (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
In my post on Wittgenstein's Metaethical Mysticism, I tried to outline the metaethical thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein as found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the "Lecture on Ethics." In the conclusion of that post, I noted that there are many reasons why a Witggensteinian metaethical mysticism ought to prove especially attractive to the Christian moral theologian--and in particular, to the progressive Christian moral theologian--and here I intend to take up the challenge of putting forth a couple of those reasons, with the remaining being relegated to subsequent posts.

First and most obviously, the mystical character of Wittgenstein's philosophy puts it in clear sympathy with Christianity's own deep and rich mystical tradition, seen in such figures as Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and, in the twentieth century, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton. Wittgenstein's notion (cf. TLP 6.522) of a mystical element at the limits of our language about which we are unable to speak, but which can be shown ("makes itself manifest"), holds much in common with the via negativa of Christian apophaticism, in which God is only able to be defined by that which God is not. "I would be speaking as incorrectly in calling God a being as if I called the sun pale or black," says Eckhart. "God is neither this nor that."

Fr. Robert Barron notes:
The twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner commented that “God” is the last sound we should make before falling silent, and Saint Augustine, long ago, said, “si comprehendis, non est Deus” (if you understand, that isn’t God), All of this formal theologizing is but commentary on that elusive and confounding voice from the burning bush: “I am who am.”
Furthermore, Wittgenstein's metaethics takes our moral intuitions seriously without reducing ethics to simply "what feels right." In the "Lecture on Ethics," Wittgenstein noted that while he believed our moral intuitions and beliefs "run against the boundaries of language" he also believed that they represented that "which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it." This is important to the Christian for whom our moral sense is some combination of the reflection of the divine image in us and/or the movement of the Holy Spirit on our hearts. "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight," St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans,
but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (2:15-16, NRSV)
At the same time, of course, our Christian faith teaches us that we are fallen into sin and thus prone to error, and that therefore what is good and bad cannot be directly reducible to what feels good or bad:
If you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:14-16, NRSV).
Wittgenstein's metaethics allows for this in his distinction between relative statements of value (which are not philosophically problematic) and "the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable" which can only be understood mystically.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
So goes our Confession of Sin, the prayer with which we began this service, which is structured to begin with confession and end with thanksgiving. It’s a familiar prayer to us, because it also appears in the mass, either at the beginning in the Penitential Order or before the Offertory as part of the Prayers of the People. Following the direction of St. Paul’s exhortation, we turn to God for forgiveness and absolution before approaching the Lord’s Table in the Eucharistic liturgy.

Amos had a vision of God setting a plumb line in the midst of the people of Israel, a weighted string used as a vertical reference line, metaphorically speaking a standard for judging their moral correctness at a time when their failure of that test was very much a foregone conclusion. So too are we as Christians called to a holiness we are fundamentally incapable of keeping through our own power. Thus the inescapable necessity of our confession and subsequent absolution.

When the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer were working on the revised confession of sin prayer for the Rite II services, they chose to make explicit that the standard we were failing to meet was that of the greatest commandments identified by Jesus in today’s gospel passage: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

The first of those commandments would be one well known to Jesus’ audience, especially to the expert in the law who questioned Jesus. It’s a quote from the Torah book of Deuteronomy and appears in the Shema Yisrael--the one which appears in the Gospel According to Saint Mark, the first phrase of the shema is quoted as well:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.
To love God with all one’s heart, and with all one’s soul, and with all one’s strength, and with all one’s mind means to love God with one’s entire person -- physical, mental, and spiritual. But what does it mean to love God, in practical terms, when God’s very Being defies the very possibility of our comprehension? After all, as Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote long ago, si comprehendis, non est Deus -- “if you understand, that isn’t God.”

We live in an age where there are almost as many different, warring understandings of Who and what God is -- or isn’t! -- as there are people to hold to them. As a consequence of religious freedom and a long list of social factors, the diversity of opinion which exists on questions of ultimate reality and the sacred is truly unprecedented.

Over the last month and a half, we have listened in our lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures to stories of how different understandings of the divine quite literally warred with each other, often with massive amounts of violence involved. The way the story is told, it’s almost like a sporting event. There’s the home team: Elijah, Elisha, Amos. And there’s the away team: Ahab, Jezebel, the priests of Baal, Amaziah. When our team “wins” we’re supposed to cheer; when “their” team scores a goal we’re supposed to hiss.

But is it really supposed to work that way?

Jesus’ answer to the lawyer in our Gospel reading today might suggest otherwise to us. The Samaritans were a people who held a different theological understanding than did the Jews of Judea, different in a way which seems small and trivial to us but which was the world to the Jews and the Samaritans themselves. You might remember the Gospel we heard two weeks ago, in which Jesus was refused entrance to a Samaritan city “because the face of Jesus was set toward Jerusalem.” The disciples wanted to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” but Jesus turned and rebuked them.

And now, a mere chapter later in the Gospel According to Saint Luke, Jesus uses a Samaritan as the example of the ideal neighbor, even above the puritanical obedience to the Jewish purity laws found in the refusal of the priest and the Levite to make themselves unclean by touching blood. Jesus is asked what is necessary to inherit eternal life, and the answer doesn't seem to presuppose that theological correctness is any necessary prerequisite.

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus is asked, and answers: the Samaritan. The Muslim. The Hindu. The Wiccan. The Buddhist. The Scientologist. The Daoist. The Satanist. The Mormon. The atheist.

Amos said to Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son,” denying “that he belonged to the class of professional prophets; his vocation is due to the personal intervention of the Lord.” God is not limited to expressing truth in those places where we already expect to find it. All people are among God’s children, for whom Christ lived and died, and the work of the Holy Spirit can be found in all peoples and places.

Furthermore, the deep spiritual and philosophical insights of those of other faiths, or of no faith at all, can often be used to deepen and enrich our own Christian understanding and spirituality. For example, the descriptions of an intellectually compelling “Zen Catholicism” put forth by the Roman Catholic monk and priest Thomas Merton in his writings on the intersections of Zen Buddhism and Christian mysticism played a crucial role in my own conversion to Christianity.

Our proper recognition of those elements of truth and sanctification found in all faiths ought not, however, be allowed to lead us into the sort of theological relativism in which Christianity is merely “true for us” and one faith is just as good as other.

When I finish this sermon, we will stand up and affirm our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the creed of our baptismal covenant which we renewed just two weeks ago as we welcomed two new members into the Body of Christ. We will say “I believe” with confidence, pride, and thanksgiving, as is good and right. These are the truths, however we may understand them, that God has revealed to us through the person of Jesus -- who identifies Christself in the Gospel According to St. John as the “way, the truth, and the life” -- and through the writings of the Holy Scriptures and the traditions of Mother Church. We affirm these tenets boldly and without flinching.

To do otherwise would be to give in to the dangerous idea that religion is little more than personally meaningful -- or, at best, communally meaningful -- ritual and theology a discipline without a subject. That is the fatal quicksand which threatens to consume our “Spiritual But Not Religious” age. Our ultimate commitment must always be to the radical power of eternal truths and self-consuming love.

But it must be to truth and love even above tradition or doctrine. And those ends are always best served when people with different understandings can come together in humility, admitting that we each but “see through a glass darkly,” to teach and learn from each other without animus or coercion; to challenge the beliefs of others and have our own beliefs be challenged in turn, amidst a welcoming environment of respect and toleration; to love and serve one another as neighbors, as full citizens of the Kin-dom of God.

All people who seek truth and love with sincere hearts are on the same team, and that team is God’s team even if its members might not agree on just Who God Is -- or isn’t. Indeed, in many ways a devout member of a different faith, or a principled person of no faith, can be said to be doing the will of God much more perfectly than can a lackluster Christian.

Saint Paul writes that he and Saint Timothy have prayed without ceasing for the Christians in Colossae “asking that [they might] be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that [they might] lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to [God], as [they bore] fruit in every good work and as [they grew] in the knowledge of God.” So too ought to be our own prayer for ourselves! For all of us, no matter what our religion or lack thereof might be, have plenty of room to grow in our knowledge of God.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with the old joke about a group of people who, having passed from this world into the next, are met by St. Peter at the pearly gates for a tour of heaven. As the tour goes on St. Peter takes them through the Baptist section of heaven, where everyone is giving glory to God in fully staid dourness, and the Pentecostal section, a crazed ecstatic frenzy of dancing and speaking in tongues, and so on. They come to our own Episcopalian section, with is an elegant dinner party with fine wines and exquisite food. As they come to a certain group way off to themselves, St. Peter draws the group closer and whispers, "Now, for this next group, we need to be really quiet. They are the Catholics and they think they're the only ones here.”

I repeat this joke now not in order to single out our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers and siblings for criticism. Indeed, I would argue that it grossly misrepresents actual Catholic doctrine on the subject. But I repeat it because there is a sense in which we are all -- Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative -- guilty of acting as if we have an exclusive monopoly on salvation, of falling into the sin of thinking we have found the formula -- the words or the actions or the beliefs -- by which one can alone properly solicit the grace of God, that only we have gotten it right. When we do that, we idolatrously place our own conception of God in front of the infinite and ineffable reality of Who God Is.

And so, truly sorry, we turn to God and humbly repent, and ask that for the sake of God’s Holy Begotten One, Jesus Christ, God might have mercy on us and forgive us; that we might delight in God’s will, and walk in God’s ways, to the glory of God’s Name.

Amen.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
Yes, I'm still working on my Wittgenstein and metatheics series. (And my atonement theology series, too, for that matter, although at present the metaethics one has the precedence.) I promise.




Fred Clark wrote about patripassianism recently, and got an "Amen!" from Tony Jones. I share their instinct that God the Parent can known, and more importantly has known, suffering, but am uncomfortable with Clark's description of Trinitarian theological reasoning:
one is “allowed” to recite the lawyerly formulations of the Athanasian Creed, but if you stray at all from that narrow path or attempt to say anything more — any positive statements, clarifications, analogies, applications — you’re screwed. [. . . T]his doctrine creates so many different ways in which you can be screwed that it’s hard not to suspect this was the intention — a doctrine more useful for generating and then condemning heresies than for avoiding error.
A lot of this comes down to Clark being much more Protestant than I am, so traditional notions of heresy and orthodoxy don't hold the same authority for him as for me. But I do think the best articulation of the pure theology of the Trinity is found in the Athanasian articulation (although admittedly it's light on the practical implications), and that it's important to be mindful of the ancient heresies precisely because God defies the categories we are liable to try to place God in if we're not eternally vigilant.

Insofar as patripassianism is by definition a form of modalism, confusing or conflating in some sense the distinction in persons between God the Parent and God the Begotten, then it represents a damaging heresy and should be denounced. That strikes me as pretty straight forward. But does it?

I think it's possible to meaningfully still speak about God the Parent being present with and sharing the suffering of God the Begotten upon the Cross (or, if our theology requires God the Parent to forsake God the Begotten in order for God to experience the absence of God, then surely the Parent suffers in the act of forsaking the beloved Child!) without falling into modalism, without confusing the distinction in persons between the Parent and the Begotten. The question then becomes a defitional one, whether a suffering Parent still constitutes heretical patripassianism even when it isn't modalist. I suspect the answer should be no, but the trail goes pretty much cold at the Wikipedia article, and without reading the primary texts in which member (or better yet, ecumenical councils) of the early Church denounce the heresy it's impossible to say.




In a talk on theodicy, Roger Olson says, "Well, theology has four criteria: revelation, including Jesus Christ and Scripture, tradition, reason and experience." Now, Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to the world. That's central to my faith. But I don't know how much sense it makes to talk about Jesus Christ as a subcategory of revelation when we are talking about criteria of theology. The revelation which was the historical Jesus is mediated to us through scripture and tradition. And the revelation of the Risen Christ is mediated to us through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience--the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a variation of the Anglican three-legged stool. So I'm not sure what sense it makes to talk of Jesus as a separate revelation when we're talking about our work as a theologians. In a sense, what Christian theology does is precisely try to arrive at the revelation of Jesus Christ through the tools of scripture, tradition, reason, experience, etc.

Furthermore, the way Olson formulates the Quadrilateral implies that tradition, reason, and experience are not also forms of revelation. I suppose I can understood why a non-liberal ("post-conservative") evangelical Protestant wouldn't classify them as such, but as a post-liberal Anglo-Catholic I absolutely would. Again, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are the means we have by which we come to terms with the revelation of God to the world: the person of Jesus Christ.




My twitter feed seemed to be, well, a-twitter with comments about Christological and/or Messianic themes in Man of Steel, the Superman mythos in general, and the superhero genre even more in general. I'll put forth Five Reasons Why Superman Isn't Jesus and Five Reasons Why Jesus Isn't Superman, both from Pop Theology at Patheos, as semi-representative. I tend to think the question is mostly silly (although the theology is usually right-on). No, Jesus isn't a superhero. He certainly isn't the "first superhero"; Gilgamesh and Herakles not only fit the "superhero" mold much better than Jesus, but they pre-date the birth of Jesus by several centuries.

At the same time, it's silly to think that how we tell superhero stories isn't influenced by the story of Jesus. I haven't seen Man of Steel yet, but the fact that there will be parallels, both in terms of imagery and of plot, between Superman and Christ, is pretty much inevitable. That doesn't make Jesus a superhero. It doesn't mean Snyder was somehow blaspheming in creating the movie, or that we are in seeing such parallels. It does mean that the great secular myths of the postmodern era do--as arguably all myths do--have a complicated, messy relationship with what Lewis famously called the "true myth": the Christian narrative.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
Over at Patheos Evangelical, Kermit Zarley asks "Is Trinitarianism Monotheistic?" and comes to a negative conclusion. My main reaction to this is a healthy helping of apathy: certainly there is a sense in which Trinitarian Christianity is monotheistic primarily because we have defined our terms in such a way as to make it so. If Zarley wants to use a different definition of monotheism, one which requires not only unity of being but also unity of hypostases, then obviously there's nothing that you or I could possibly do to stop him.

Nor would I argue that Trinitarian monotheism is the same thing as the strict monotheism of Judaism. It clearly isn't, although I would point out that the oldest parts of the Hebrew scriptures seem to draw from a henotheistic worldview rather than a strictly monotheistic one. I'm also curious how such a strict monotheism makes sense of passages such as Proverbs 8. But these are sidebars; I'm not arguing that the Hebrew scriptures teach Trinitarianism in any direct sense. Heck, I'm not even arguing that the New Testament does so.

However, it's unequivocally incorrect to say that orthodox Trinitarians believe in three gods. No matter how you parse it, that's just false. Maybe there's something subtle I'm missing to the distinction Zarley wants to make between a "unity" and "numerically one," but it seems to me pretty clear that in orthodox Christian Trinitarianism God is not only a unity, but numerically one. There is only one God. Period. Anything else is heresy (from an orthodox Trinitarian perspective).

Zarley seems to be taking advantage of a confusion between our ordinary language use of the word "person" and the specialized theological usage as a translation of the Greek hypostasis. The Trinity are not (in orthodox Trinitarianism) three separate people who together make up God, the way three members of a family might make up that family. Instead, the hypostases of the Trinity share a unity of essence: they are all, quite literally, the same metaphysical entity, in a way which is avowedly paradoxical and mysterious. The "persons" of the Trinity are not their own separate gods--on this point, Trinitarian theology is absolutely and unrelentlessly unequivocal.

And this isn't just true of abstract theology. When actual Christians get confused about the Trinity and fall into heresy--which, admittedly, happens fairly often--it's almost always either modalism or partialism, and hardly ever tritheism.

Now, I suspect that Zarley would take this as evidence of us either being disingenuous (because we're not using his definition of monotheism) or, more charitably, that Trinitarian Christians are confused about what they actually believe. (And of course, given the abysmal state of catechesis in the Church today, the latter is almost certainly true!) But given the utter clarity with which orthodox theology teaches that there is no division in being within the Godhead, I don't see how one can argue that Trinitarians understand God as being even "numerically three."

I suspect Zarley might argue something along the line that Trinitarians cannot simply declare by fiat that a distinction between separate persons doesn't require a belief in different gods. But if Trinitarians cannot define what our own theology is, who can? One can argue that the Trinity as a doctrine is incoherent--and I might even agree with one; there's a reason why we call it a "holy mystery"--but saying that Trinitarians believe in three gods is just flat-out incorrect, and seems to willfully misrepresent what orthodox theology teaches.

In many ways, the Trinity is a good example--indeed, I would argue that for the Trinitarian Christian it is the prime example--of the sort of reason-defying doctrine that Theo Hobson quite rightly defended in the article I posted about yesterday. (And note that the Trinity is not a claim about "the supernatural" as I define it!) Indeed, I fear that Zarley's antagonism towards Trinitarism on some level stems precisely from the sort of modernist hyperrationalist theology--the attempt to "iron out" Christianity and to make it "make sense"--of which both Hobson and I despair. (And note that such hyperrationalism finds a comfortable home in evangelicalism, which already eschews the ritualism of so-called "liturgical Christianity.")
cjbanning: "Saint Clare of Assisi Vanquishes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (Saint Clare)
Over at the Guardian, Theo Hobson is questing for an authentic liberal Christianity, and has come to the conclusion there are really two separate "liberal" Christian traditions.
One sort of liberal Christianity edges away from supernatural belief, and church ritual: it presents Jesus as a great moral teacher, the first humanist, through whose example we can learn to mend our world. It assumes a basic harmony between Christianity and the rational Enlightenment.

The other sort of liberal Christianity affirms political liberalism – the ideal of a state that rejects theocracy and protects people's liberties. But it does not seek to reform Christianity in a rational-humanist direction: it understands that such "reform" undermines this religion, falsifies it.

Very simply, the latter sort of liberal Christianity is the only authentic version; it must be rescued from the deathly embrace of the former sort. Only thus can liberal Christianity be renewed.
As a post-liberal Anglo-Catholic mystic, you might guess that I, like Hobson, would prefer the "ritualist" version of liberal Christianity over the "rationalist" one. And insofar as that goes, that's right. But I see a couple of problems with Hobson's binary division of liberal Christianity:

1.) Both versions are firmly rooted in the same Enlightenment project, so much so that it strikes me as naïve to just assume they can be separated out from each other. I share Hobson's distaste for "Christian-tinged humanism"--what I've often called "ethical Jesus-ism"--but am skeptical of his refusal to similarly critique the Enlightenment values that underlie the modernistic liberal political project:
I studied theology, and learned that cutting-edge thought was strongly "post-liberal"; it sought to purge theology of Enlightenment corruption, and restore its autonomy. I largely agreed with this agenda, but retained a nagging sense that such theology over-reacted against liberalism.
Hobson describes the rise of political liberation and the growth of rationalism as two separate trajectories that just happened to occur at the same time:
I found that the Reformation gradually gave rise to two forms of liberal Christianity. One of these was deeply involved in the first phase of political liberalism, in the mid-17th century. Its clearest theorist was the poet John Milton. He said that the Protestant Reformation, launched a century earlier, had now entered a new phase. God willed a new sort of state, with no official church enforcing religious unity. Instead, the state should protect people's freedom to believe and worship as they wanted (as long as they did not threaten the new political order).

He criticised any authoritarian church, established or not, that tried to impose moral and religious rules on people (he pointed out that St Paul had attacked such rules). This is the liberal Christian tradition that I affirm. It is a religious vision that entails a political vision, of the post-absolutist state, in which the ideal of liberty unites people.

But something else happened in the 17th century. Protestantism gradually absorbed rationalist assumptions about the need to reform Christianity away from both ritual and supernatural belief. This was a disaster.
But this ignores the way that both the turn towards political liberty and towards reason were part and parcel of the same modernist moment, the same historical dialectical processes, born of an emerging paradigmatic shift which changed humanity's understanding of themselves, their place in the universe, and the nature of knowledge.

Hobson wants to dethrone the modernist worldview when it comes to faith and ritual but leave it firmly in place when it comes to politics. Sorry, but it doesn't work like that. If we're going to reexamine the role of reason in our theology--and we should!--then we're going to have to do it in our politics too.

2.) Hobson's desire for a "nuanced liberal Christianity – one that affirmed political liberty, but also understood that authentic Christianity must be rooted in faith and ritual practice" is my own desire; after all, one of the reasons I identify as Anglo-Catholic is because I recognize the power of ritual. I find little to disagree with when Hobson says:
For authentic Christianity cannot dispense with faith, nor with ritual expression. If it cuts itself off from the basic, rationally unjustifiable practices of worship (prayer-speech, communal cultic action), it commits suicide. One need only recall that this is a religion that makes regular use of (what might be called) fake blood – that involves the drinking of fake blood!
But in his statements that rationalist liberal Christianity "edges away from supernatural belief" and that "Protestantism gradually absorbed rationalist assumptions about the need to reform Christianity away from [. . .] supernatural belief" (resulting in disaster) Hobson seems to assume that "faith" must require belief in the supernatural. That seems to me to be both a musunderstanding of the original Pauline understanding of what Christian faith ought to be, and wrong (or at the very least undemonstrated) on its own terms. Now part of this might just fall to differing definition of terms; I do after all affirm the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, which seems to be Hobson's example of the sort of rationality-defying practice which is necessary for faith. But I don't consider such a thing to be supernatural; instead, I'd classify it as transcendental. No one--at least no one properly catechized--actually believes an empirical change (a change in the accidents) is effected in the Communion elements; instead, the change is mystical, or metaphysical (a change in "substance," to use Trent's problematic neo-Greek metaphysics).

The problem with supernaturalism as I define it--which includes bleeding statues and ghostly apparitions but not purely spiritual transformations--is not that reason causes us to deny it. Drawing on Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and the insights of postmodernity in general, I'm perfectly comfortable recognizing the limits of our reasoning and turning to religion to fill in the gaps. It's that even when he have done so, belief in the supernatural remains unmotivated.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday, and I celebrated (beyond of course attending morning mass at the Church of the Ascension) by composing a couple of prayers about the Trinity and posting them to my Facebook. One was Trinitarian in its structure, singling out each hypostasis of the Trinity in turn as an object of praise and blesssing:
Almighty God, you created us and our world and taught us to call you Parent. We praise you and we bless you.

Incarnate God, you redeemed us by sharing in our suffering as our loving Sibling. We praise you and we bless you.

Everliving God, you comfort and sustain us and are always with us in Spirit. We praise you and we bless you.

Mysterious God, Three in One, we praise you and we bless you. Amen.
The other is more theological, focusing on the relationship(s) among the hypostases:
Lord God, you have revealed yourself to your catholic Church as a God of diversity in unity, of community in solidarity, of loving relationship and overflowing perichoresis, of dialectic and dialogue and mystical paradox. Help us to contemplate the holy mystery of your triunity, not in order to understand the incomprehensible, but to reflect and share in the living dynamism of your eternal mercy, and to always and everywhere lift our voices in praise of you: one God, Parent and Child and Holy Spirit. Amen.
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
I'm hard at work on my post(s) about the affinity between Wittgensteinian metaethics and progressive Christian moral theology, but in the meantime I'd like to direct you to the post From Rome to Canterbury: My Journey to Anglicanism by Thomas Bradshaw over at The Empty Nave. This past Sunday--which was, of course the Feast of Pentecost--I had the pleasure and honor of witnessing Thomas make a mature public affirmation of his faith and commitment to the responsibilities of his baptism and receive the laying on hands by the Rt. Rev. Frederick Borsch. I'm proud and pleased to have been (in his words)
an inclusive, wise lay-minister and vestry member, who would later become a good friend--that pushed me to study hard and nourished my hunger of a greater theological education than what was available for me.
I should also note that some eleven hundred miles away on that same day, another dear friend of mine--Ruth Ellen of Patron of Poets, Scholars, and Nuns--was also receiving the sacrament of confirmation.

As I witnessed the confirmation of Thomas and the rest of his confirmation class, I of course remembered my own confirmation by George Councell (our diocesan bishop) in June 2008, but was also struck by the form used for the reception of candidates who have already been confirmed in another denomination:
N., we recognize you as a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep you. Amen.
I have frequently noted that one of the things I like about Anglicanism is that it is very clear as to the distinction between the Communion and the catholic Church, with the former only being a branch of the latter. Thomas was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and confirmed in the Episcopal Church; Ruth Ellen was baptized in the United Church of Christ and confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I myself received both my baptism and my confirmation in the Episcopal Church. But we are all members of the same, one Church:
There is one Body and one Spirit, just as you were called into one Hope when you were called. There is one Savior, one faith, one baptism, one God and creator of all, who is over all, who works through all and is within all. (Ephesians 4:4-5)
Pentecost is often called "the birthday of the Church." As I've mentioned before, I find this somewhat misleading, and prefer to think of it instead as a preliminary coming of age, one of many different milestones of maturation from the teachings of the prophets to the confession of Peter to the resurrection at Easter to the ascension into heaven to the outpouring of the Spirt on Pentecost to the great ecumenical councils and beyond all the way to the eventual instantiation of the Kindom of Heaven in its fullness. One of the authorized collects for the feast of Pentecost states that on that day God "opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of [the] Holy Spirit," the other that God "taught the hearts of [God's] faithful people by sending to them the light of [the] Holy Spirit."

As an Anglo-Catholic, I believe that the Church subsists in the apostolic churches as governed by the historic episcopate, but also that the elements of truth and sanctification found outside those structures compel towards catholic unity under apostolic authority. I'm reminded of this quote from Fr. Richard P. McBrien's 101 Questions and Answers on the Church, which I previously quoted in my essay History and Christ:
[Jesus Christ] is the great sacrament of our encounter with God and God's with us. The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of our encounter with Christ and of Christ's with us. And the seven sacraments, in their turn, are sacraments of our encounter with the Church and of the Church's with us. Indeed, the other members of the Church are sacraments of encounter for us and we for them because, in the Christian scheme of things, we experience and manifest the love of God through love of neighbor.
On this past Saturday--the day before Pentecost, and the penultimate day of Easter--my family buried my paternal grandfather. One of my duties consisted of picking some of the readings to be used at his funeral mass at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church. I chose Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-3:9 as the Hebrew Scripture reading and Acts 10:34-48 as the New Testament reading. I chose the passage from Acts in part because it is traditional to read from that book in the Easter season, and part of the reason I extended it beyond the suggested reading of 10:34-43 was (beyond the fact that I needed to fiddle with it and I like long readings; my cousin-in-law, who read the Hebrew Scripture reading, which I also extended, was less than thrilled at me) because the following section seemed especially appropriate for the day before Pentecost (as the priest noted in his homily):
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
This is, of course, a story of radical inclusion. We are the Church, but the Church is God's, not ours. We don't get to set the boundaries.

cjbanning: (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
The pursuit of a philosophical metaethic which simultaneously manages to be postfoundationalist and non-relativist dominated much of 20th-century thought, and has continued (and no doubt will continue) to do so into the 21st century. Of the major thinkers associated with this project, one might not think first of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose remarks on ethics were admittedly both rare and brief. Still, I think it's worthwhile to use this post to quickly sketch a portrait of Wittgenstein's metaethical position, because his thought has been such a heavy influence on my own philosophy and theology, and because I think its explicitly mystical character ought to make it of particular interest to the metaethicist who is also a theologian.

Wittgenstein's most sustained enquiry into the metaethical was his 1929 "Lecture on Ethics". I recommend you follow the link to read the whole thing--it's pretty short--but the upshot is that Wittgenstein finally comes to the following conclusion:
I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men [sic] who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.

This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.
This is a further development of the line of thought on ethics found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.
If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.
What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.
It must lie outside the world.

6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions.
Propositions cannot express anything higher.

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.
Ethics are transcendental.
(Ethics and æsthetics are one.)

6.422 The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form “thou shalt …” is: And what if I do not do it? But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least these consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the question. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself.
(And this is clear also that the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable.)

6.423 Of the will as the subject of the ethical we cannot speak.
And the will as a phenomenon is only of interest to psychology.
Obviously, there is not much here to satisfy the typical analytical philosopher, who is likely to reject it as so much mystery-mongering. But we need to place Wittgenstein's metaethics into the context of his broader metaphysical project and his deflationary metaphilosophy, a project my understanding of which I have tried to sketch out in my previous posts on Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's mysticism about ethics is, of course, not a specific refusal to address the ethical, but rather simply a subset of a broader mystical approach to the relationship between reality and language in general.

A potentially damning criticism of Wittgenstein's metaethics is that his mysticism doesn't provide any real insight into how we ought to actually go about the activity of ethical reflection. Mystical notions of transcendental good and evil don't necessarily provide all that much help in, say, determining the morality of drone warfare--or even whether one should cheat on a test. However, I think this understates the usefulness of Wittgenstein's guidance. It is of course true that Wittgenstein never took up these issues directly (and only rarely even indirectly) and that the following is thus of necessity somewhat speculative. That said, I think it should be possible (and not even difficult) to imagine what a Wittgensteinian ethical approach ought to look like from extrapolating from the work Wittgenstein did do on metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.

Imagine if Wittgenstein were to have written an Ethical Investigations alongside the Philosophical Investigations, in which he applied the PI's quasi-phenomenological method to moral reasoning. Just as PI enquires into philosophy of language by examining the real-world ways in which human beings actually use language, this hypothetical EI would look at the actual ways we go about the process of reasoning morally--a phenomenology of morals, if you will. (It's been a while since I read the book, but I suspect that an argument could be made that Nietzsche had already done precisely that in his Genealogy of Morals--although I also suspect that, given Wittgenstein's known Tolstoyan sympathies, the Austrian philosopher would have come to very different conclusions had he undertaken the project than had the German.)

Ethical Investigations might even go on to speak of "ethics games" just as Philosophical Investigations does of language games. Just as Wittgenstein wanted ""to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life" (PI §23), in EI he would want to similarly focus on the way in which ethical discourse represented a human activity and way of life. This would not be moral relativism (remember that for Wittgenstein, there was some sort of "bastard sense" in which transcendent notions of good and evil still held reign) but rather a faith in the power of our ethical discourses as they take place "on the ground" to encourage moral behavior and discourage immoral behavior--a sort of critical moral realism coupled with a skepticism that philosophy (at least as the discipline has been practiced for the the last couple of centuries or so) represents the best tool for coming to moral conclusions.

Richard Rorty famously said in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that if one took care of freedom, truth would take care of itself. I think there is a sense that for Wittgenstein, ethics ought to be similarly capable of "taking care of itself." I think that Wittgenstein might have agreed with Rorty's subsequent comments in CIS:
If we are ironic enough about our final vocabularies, and curious enough about everyone else's, we do not have to worry about whether we are in direct contact with moral reality, or whether we are blinded by ideology, or whether we are being weakly "relativistic." (176-77)
No doubt there is plenty in the above paragraphs which would be perhaps somewhat less than totally persuasive to our hypothetical analytic interlocutor. So it goes. However, I do think there are many reasons why a Witggensteinian metaethical mysticism ought to prove especially attractive to the Christian moral theologian--and in particular, to the progressive Christian moral theologian--and I hope to discuss those in my next post.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
As part of his "Questions That Haunt" series, Tony Jones has taken on the question of theodicy and come to a startling conclusion (emphasis his):
I know this: No one — not the Jews, not the Romans — was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. God was was ultimately responsible. That blood is ultimately on God’s hands. God could have stopped it; God didn’t. And so we’re all left to wonder about God’s responsibility for that act of evil, and for all acts of evil.
First off, I find Tony's disavowal of human responsibility for the crucifixion perplexing. It doesn't follow obviously from anything else he says (as far as I can tell) and, at least for me, seems to me to undermine the power of the Incarnation, the entire point of which was for God's Begotten One to enter into our human suffering and become vulnerable to human evil. Even if we were to agree that God were ultimately responsible, it's not at all clear to me how that absolves Judas of Jesus' betrayal or Pilate of Jesus' condemnation.

The question of God's responsibility, however, is much more interesting and challenging. Here's some more of Tony's logic:
God is ultimately liable for the evil in the world. On my theory, God could reclaim omnipotence at any moment, step in, and stop evils and horrors. The fact that God doesn’t, implicates God.

Does this make God less than perfectly benevolent? Maybe. Maybe God also abdicated “benevolence” at creation, or at least perfect benevolence. Or maybe God’s all-in-allness means that our conception of “goodness” and “benevolence” is swallowed up in God’s fullness.
I think much of this is at least partly right. Certainly it is probably a mistake to think of God's omnibenevolence as just like human benevolence, only better. But I think a lot is also caught up in the word "could." Could God step in and stop evils and horrors? At first glance, it seems like to deny this is to deny God's omnipotence; of course, God could, because God can do anything and, being the highest authority, answers to no authority higher than Godself.

But God is answerable to Godself, to the perfect goodness of God's own nature which requires God to respect the dignity and free will of God's creatures created in God's own image. This is no more to speak of a limitation on the part of God than it would be to say that God "cannot" create a stone so heavy that God "cannot" lift it. In both cases, the true limitation resides in the ability of our language to describe that which lies past its limits. Instead, to speak of God's "inability" to act contrary to God's nature is actually to speak of the very perfection of divine freedom; there is no division in God's will and thus no force which could possibly coerce God into acting against Godself.

Of course, without getting needlessly metaphysical, the above does assume there is some sort of enduring character to God's goodness, that God cannot and would not simply decide today that respecting human dignity and free will is a good thing and decide tomorrow that it is bad. This, then, is against what Roger Olson calls "nominalistic voluntarism," the claim that "“Whatever God does is automatically good and right just because God does it":
[The nominalistic voluntarist believes that] God does not have an eternal nature of character; he [sic] is pure power and will. God is whatever God decides to be. The result is that the “good” is whatever God commands and God does not command anything because it is good. It is good only because God commands it.

[. . .]

This makes God truly monstrous because God, then, has no virtuous character. “Good” becomes whatever God decides and does and, ultimately, becomes meaningless because it has no essential connection with anything we know as “the good.”
Drawing then on the scriptural truth that "Ever since the creation of the world, the eternal power and divine nature of God, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made" (Romans 1:20), I affirm that the enduring nature of moral goodness is discernible, if imperfectly, by human beings through the dialectic of human reason and history, as I note in my blog post on Liberalism and Moral Absolutes and perhaps most fully in my essay History and Christ. While our understanding of what is good and evil is always evolving and improving through history as it is led by the Spirit, good and evil themselves do not change, and certainly not at the whims of a capricious deity. So when the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia asserts
As to whom we are to obey, there can be no doubt that first we are bound to offer an unreserved service to Almighty God in all His [sic] commands. No real difficulty against this truth can be gathered from putting in juxtaposition the unchangeableness of the natural law and an order, such as that given to Abraham to slay his son Isaac. The conclusive answer is that the absolute sovereignty of God over life and death made it right in that particular instance to undertake the killing of an innocent human being at His [sic] direction.
I simply cannot go there with it. If God had allowed Abraham to kill Isaac at God's direction, God would have revealed Godself to be a moral monster unworthy both of worship and of obdeience. Following a line of throught I encountered (if I remember correctly) in Elie Wiesel's Messengers of God, I tend to assume that Abraham knew this too. By going ahead and carrying out God's outrageous command, Abraham was calling God's bluff, so to speak--putting the Lord God Almighty to the test.

Does this understanding of the relationship between God and goodness require us to posit some independent existence for goodness in some Platonic heaven in order for God to perfectly embody it? Of course not, and I plan soon to write a post on Wittgenstein's metaethical mysticism to gesture towards how we can talk practically about enduring good and evil without getting needlessly caught up in metaphysics.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
For my birthday and for Christmas, my best friend Aimee of Phoenix Refashioning painted me a pretty epic painting, entitled "Saint Clare Vanquishes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse":

Saint Clare Vanquishes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse )

Readers of this blog will know that Saint Clare of Assisi is my favorite saint, and, in my admittedly very much biased opinion (it was painted by my best friend! and, more importantly, for me!) this painting is just awesome. In particular, Aimee's style really works for the subject matter, giving it a quasi-medieval sort of feel.

This painting exists because of a comment I made to Aimee when we both saw together the 17th-century painting "Saint Francis Defeats the Antichrist" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by the Mexican painter Cristóbal de Villalpando. If you live in the Philadelphia area, go see it in person. It's worth it.

Saint Francis Defeats the Antichrist )

As the Art Musuem web page notes,
This violent confrontation is not described in any of the biographies of the famously peaceful saint. It was likely devised by the artist with the guidance of his Franciscan patrons, making it the earliest known example of this unorthodox iconography, which is found only in Mexico.
It just seemed so strange and unexpected and out of character for Francis, that I remarked that I wanted to see a painting "Saint Clare Vanquishes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

And because Aimee is awesome, she painted it for me.

The painting is also evocative--I'm assuming deliberately--of the legend of St. Clare repelling the Saracens by holding up a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament.

St Clare with the Scene of the Siege of Assisi )
cjbanning: (Symposium)
Last week, Roger Olson posted yet another intriguing--if perhaps, I might argue, misguided--reflection, When Did We Open The Pandora’s Box of Theological/Doctrinal Pluralism?:
[T]he academy, the guild, of Christian theologians has given up on the search for truth about God. That is, we have given up on even the ideal of discovering truth that is consensual. The result is that theology has laid down its claim to being a discipline, a science (in the German sense of Wissenshaft), and has become by-and-large a collection of disparate voices speaking out of incommensurate experiences treated as authoritative sources and norms.

[. . .] Who, outside of the theological academy, guild (such as it is), takes theology seriously anymore? Even within it, much of what goes under the label “theology” isn’t recognizable as theology in any traditional sense, as the search for truth about God, but is really politics (in the broadest sense of the word) disguised as theology.
This interested me because it reminded me of one of my favorite essays by the American neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. It's called "Philosophy as a Kind of Writing" and is collected in his book Consequences of Pragmatism. In the essay, Rorty considers two different ways of understanding what philosophy is and might be:
Here is a way of looking at philosophy: from the beginnning, philosophy has worried about the relation between thought and its object, representation and represented. The old problem reference to the inexistent, for example, has been handled in various unsatisfactory ways because of a failure to distinguish properly philosophical questions about meaning and reference from extraneous questions motivated by scientific, ethical, and religious concerns. Once these questions are properly isolated, however, we can see philosophy as a field which has its center in a series of questions about the relations between words and the world. The recent purifying move from talk of ideas to talk of meanings has dissipated the epistemological skepticism which motivated much of past philosophy. This has left philosophy a more limited, but more self-conscious, rigorous, and coherent area of inquiry.

Here is another way of looking at philosophy: philosophy started off as a confused combination of the love of wisdom and the love of argument. It began with Plato's notion that the rigor of mathematical argumentation exposed, and could be used to correct, the pretensions of the politicians and the poets. [. . .] The philosophers' own scholastic little definitions of "philosophy" are merely polemical devices--intended to exclude from the field of honor those whose pedigrees are unfamiliar. We can pick out "the philosophers" in the contemporary intellectual world only by noting who is commenting on a certain sequence of historical figures. All that "philosophy" as a name for a sector of culture means is "talk about Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Frege, Russell . . . and that lot." Philosophy is best seen as a kind of writing. It is delimited, as is any literary genre, not by form or matter, but by tradition--a family romance involving. e.g. Father Parmenides, honest old Uncle Kant, and bad brother Derrida.
You've probably by this point already anticipated my thesis: just as there are two different ways of thinking about philosophy, so too are there two different ways of thinking about theology. The first is the science, the Wissenshaft which Olson seemingly prefers, "the vision of a universal theology that makes truth claims that are intended to be true for everyone" whose loss he bemoans. This approach is a "vertical" one in which revelation is understood as something outside ourselves and essentially static. "Our task as theologians," Olson writes, "should not be to allow our social locations to determine our theological conclusions; it should be to set aside our social locations, as much as possible, in order to adhere to objective, given, divine revelation and interpret it objectively (as much as possible)."

The second way of thinking about theology, the way I understand theology, is as a kind of writing, a genre like poetry or journalism, as a conversation--which is of course appropriate for the Trinitarian because, as I've stressed over and over again on this blog, our Triune God exists in and as perichoretic conversation. This approach is a "horizontal" one in which revelation is dynamic and happens through our experience of being the Body of Christ, of which scripture and tradition are integral parts (but not the whole). When I talk about "A Faith without Foundations" or a "Messiah without Metaphysics," this is what I'm envisioning: a postfoundationalist, postliberal theology which, yes, is always-already going to be political, in the broadest sense of the word.

Olson complains that "in the interest of being sensitive to the oppressed, the academy, the guild, of Christian theologians has given up on the search for truth about God." I think this is a bit parochial in its misdiagnosis. Christian theologians have not given up on "the search for truth about God"--but some (not enough!) have given up on intellectually indefensible notions of what it means to be "true." And they have done this not just to be "sensitive to the oppressed," but because their conversation includes Hume and Kant and Hegel and Wittgenstein and Rorty (and, yes, Schleiermacher, but with nowhere near the importance Olson ascribes to him) and has evolved to incorporate their insights.

And obviously, the "family romance" of theology includes quite a bit of intermarriage with that of philosophy. My formal training, such as it is, is in philosophy, not theology, so when I approach theological questions on this blog it is always from the perspective of both conversations, insofar as we can refer to them as discrete and separate conversations at all (which I question).

May the conversation be fruitful and ongoing!
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Speaking from the pulpit last Sunday at the Church of the Ascension, I said that "[prayer] is a chance to enter into relationship with the Triune God who, as Parent, Child, and Spirit, always exists in and as relationship. True relationship works both ways, which means that in some mysterious way I do not pretend to understand, our prayers have the ability to transform God."

Looking over a recent post from Roger E. Olson, one of my favorite theo-bloggers among those with whom I typically expect to disagree, I see him developing this point by describing his youthful encounter with an essay by Reformed theologian James Daane called “Can a Man Bless God?”:
Like many seminary students, I was taught in my theology classes that God is immutable; nothing any creature can do can add anything to God. God is in every way always complete and unconditioned—incapable of being given anything he does not already possess in himself eternally. Traditional theologians like to pay God metaphysical compliments like that.

Against the stream of traditional Christian theism, and against the grain of his own Reformed tradition, Daane wrote that “[The] God of the Bible is not unresponsive to finite human condition. His freedom does not consist in being free from the touch of what is not God, nor is his immutability a change of relationship to the world that involves no change in God….” (p. 171) Daane asked why theologians came up with the idea of God as the “Unconditioned Absolute” and answered that they “lingered too long at the waterholes of Western rationalism.” (p. 172) He concluded that “In the biblical view God hears and responds to the cries of the needy, and is indeed so involved in conditional, contingent reality that he can be both sinned against and, no less, blessed by man in such a way that it makes a difference to God himself. But a God who is unconditional because he himself accounts for all conditions by virtue of his essence or decree is a God who cannot hear, let alone answer prayer.” (p. 173)

Daane was one of several Christian thinkers who together liberated me from thinking of God as absolute, unconditioned, incapable of being changed or affected by what creatures, by what I, do.
While I am as I said sympathetic with their premise to a point, I find myself only able to go so far with Daane and Olson. [And, for that matter, with Tony Jones.] I entered into my theism--such as it is--through Wittgenstein and Tillich. It was, in some important sense, at the very "waterholes of Western rationalism" that I learned to make sense of my belief in the Ground of Being. If we too divorce the God of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar too much from the God of philosophy, then the "Biblical" God we are left with may seem more like a superpowered alien than anything else, an empirical being which can be said to either exist or not exist and demands evidence, empirical evidence, for the claim that it exists. And that evidence is, to say the least, sorely lacking. Worse yet, it would always make God and our belief in God contingent upon that evidence--the God Who Might Be, and Who Might Not Have Been in some other possible world--instead of allowing God to exist in Godself as the One Who Is, the most-real reality which is primal and ultimate. If God exists, then God exists necessarily, for any being who exists other than necessarily cannot in truth, by my reckoning, be called God.

More importantly, even if we were to conclude such evidence did exist, little would flow from it. I do not worship a being simply because it is more powerful than I am. I do not consent to obey its edicts simply because it has the power to torture or annihilate me--or if I do, then I do so out of cowardice rather than virtue. Such a view of God degrades God in a way which makes theism unpalatable down to its core. Instead of the source of all goodness in which we live and move and have our being, we are left with a jealous tyrant in the sky.

Admittedly, I have subtitled this blog "A Messiah without Metaphysics." But I write that as a Wittgensteinian, so what I am trying to describe is not so much a God without metaphysics as it is a God which is past metaphysics. Both Wittgenstein and Nietzsche--two of the philosophers who have influenced me most profoundly--were not afraid to use "metaphysics" as a pejorative. But I think both of them also understood the subtle truth that the movement beyond metaphysics is itself in some sense always-already a deeply metaphysical move. We cannot escape the limits of our language even as we do our best to gesture at what lies beyond them.

But to believe in a truly unmetaphysical God in the sense I've laid out above--a God who is simply a contingent being who can be said to exist or not on the basis of contingent evidence--represents turning our back on millennia of theological tradition and Church teaching, as Olson plainly admits:
I came to believe that paying too many metaphysical compliments to God can de-personalize God. That trend was, I believe, unwittingly set in motion by some of the church fathers as they adopted Greek philosophical modes of thinking about God, carried forward by Augustine under the spell of neo-Platonism, deepened by Thomas Aquinas who borrowed from Aristotle to describe God as actus purus—pure actuality without potentiality, and brought into evangelical thought by Reformed theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge.
Now of course I do not assume that everything the Church fathers and mothers, or Augustine or Aquinas, wrote is inspired and authorative truth. Far from it! If anything, I am the first to critique what I see as an untenable neo-Aristotelianism in Roman Catholic theology since Aquinas.

But as an Anglo-Catholic, I am also far more wary than a Protestant like Olson might be to conclude that such constant and uniform Church teaching represents some sort of poisoned well. The solution is to put Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas in dialogue with Hume and Kant and Wittgenstein, not to retreat to some illusion of sola scriptura. This is especially important because I cannot see the Greek-influenced understandings of God's nature as being something separable from other key conclusions made by the early Councils, e.g. about the Trinity. I don't see how we can throw out the influence of Greek philosophy and still keep our understanding of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as described in the creeds and confessions of the ecumenical councils.

At the same time, I agree--as I said plainly in my sermon--that God's being in true relationship with humanity requires God to be able to be transformed by us and by our prayers. And Scripture does indeed seem to agree with this point and confirm it: even if we don't understand the repeated references to God changing God's mind in the Hebrew scriptures completely literally, neither do I think we can write them off entirely. Instead, I see them gesturing towards the higher reality of a mysterious God who is at once immutable and always changing, who is at once relational and absolute. And as I said in my sermon, I don't really pretend to understand this paradox, but I do think that either of our choices in trying to defuse it is going to end up falling short in one way or another.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension during our service of Morning Prayer, this twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2012.

1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

In Joss Whedon’s 2005 science-fiction film Serenity, the disheveled spaceship captain and smuggler Malcolm Reynolds, who had lost his Christian faith in an interplanetary civil war, kneels down in front of a statue of the Buddha while disguised as a woman and mockingly says, “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a plastic rocket.” This comment is, I think, evocative of the discomfort both Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes have with petitionary prayer. After all, isn’t Christianity a religion about selflessness and self-sacrifice and love of neighbor? How could we possibly make that fit with getting down on our knees and giving God our grocery list of needs and wants?

That sentiment might only be intensified over these last few weeks as so many so relatively close to us find themselves without their homes or livelihoods. When they have lost so much, we might be wary to bring our own petty wants before the LORD. I think this is what prompted one of my friends to post as their facebook status:
I don't care if your electricity is restored, please stop praying
- God
I should note this was almost immediately after the hurricane, before the utter seriousness of people going weeks without power made itself clear. But when I objected that I couldn’t imagine God ever saying “please stop praying,” no matter how superficial the subject of the prayers might be, I was told, “but it was still funny.” I’ve listened to friends complain about their mother-in-law’s habit of praying for finding good parking spaces, or their sibling’s prayers for the success of his business. Countless times I’ve encountered critics pointing to two groups of fans of rival sports teams, or rival political candidates, praying to the same God that their respective team will win, as if that was nothing more than an absurdity.

It would be wonderful if we were all perfect people whose only desires were high-minded, for world peace and an end to global poverty. But we’re not perfect people; we’re human beings, our very nature wounded by the reality of sin.

But that’s okay. Because that’s where Jesus Christ, who is a perfect person, the only perfect person, comes in. And because of this, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” This refers, of course, to our ultimate hope, that we will come to share in Christ’s resurrection. But it also applies to all of our little hopes, our petty desires, our secret wishes, our hopes for the future. We approach God as who we are, wanting what we want, and it is a good and rightful thing to put those needs and desires before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. We trust in Jesus to wash us clean.

For me the best example of this is found in Psalm 137, in which the psalmist prays that the heads of babies might be dashed upon the rocks. Clearly, this is not a righteous desire for a person to have. But given the historical context of the psalm, amidst the Babylonian captivity, it is arguably a very human one. And so Scripture provides us with this example set among many examples of how to pray of a person in their human brokenness reaching out to God from within that human brokenness.

The great Hindu activist Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

The God who took on our human nature and was born of the Blessed Virgin Mother in order to suffer a painful death on a cross wants to be invited into our suffering, our longing, our weakness. Don’t get me wrong, God is present with us in our suffering whether we extend that invitation or not, whether we are aware of it or not. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t appreciate being given the invitation anyway.

These are the dynamics at work in our Hebrew scripture passage this morning.

By many standards, Hannah had a comfortable life, with a husband who loved and supported her. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy her. She wanted a son--a daughter wasn’t good enough!--in order to keep her husband’s other wife from mocking her.

And so, as is good and right, she brought her desire before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. And “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the LORD.’”

No doubt Penninah too prayed to the LORD, asking God that she might earn the love and favor of her husband which had been given to Hannah instead. And yet, unlike Hannah, Penninah did not receive what she had asked for. Indeed, there is a story found in the Jewish midrash which provides a fate even worse for Penninah: “Hannah would give birth to one child, and Peninnah would bury two; Hannah bore four, and Peninnah buried eight. When Hannah was pregnant with her fifth child, Peninnah feared that now she would bury her last two children.”

God did not give Hannah what she asked for and deny Penninah because God loved Penninah any less than Hannah. Nor was it because Hannah knew some special way to pray in order to ensure the result she wanted, to force God’s hand. No, it’s just that, in this fallen world, it’s a simple fact that we don’t always get what we want, no matter how hard we pray, no matter who we are.

And no matter what the Rolling Stones might say, neither do we even always get what we need. Every fifteen seconds, a child dies from hunger-related causes somewhere on Planet Earth. That’s a problem worth praying over. But prayer alone isn’t going to the solve the problem.

Prayer is not a magic spell or a letter to Santa. God is not a genie in a bottle.

Hurricane Sandy did not hit the shores of our region because people didn’t pray hard enough. Nor was it to punish the godlessness of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. Barack Obama was not re-elected President because God likes Democrats better than Republicans. Nor was it to pave the way for the Antichrist, as Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffries suggested before the election.

Our Lord Jesus Christ warns us against this type of superstitious thinking in today’s Gospel passage. The earliest written of the four canonical gospels, St. Mark’s gospel was probably written in the immediate wake of the Roman destruction of the Jewish temple, the center of Jewish life and religion. Like a flood-displaced North Jerseyan or our Texan pastor, the Jewish community found their very world turned upside down and inside out. Part of the evangelist’s task, then, was to help them understand how to make sense of the significance of this sort of event of seeming apocalyptic proportions in terms of their Christian faith and practice. And Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.”

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Jesus warns us against those who come in the name of Christ and yet lead many astray, the pastors and pundits who would turn hurricanes into instruments of a wrathful God and elections into the first phase of the apocalypse, who would have us make a false choice between religion and science, who twist and pervert our faith so it stands in opposition to the God-given gift of human reason, who use our scriptures and traditions as weapons with which to bludgeon.

Hurricane Sandy hit our shores because a tropical storm came in contact with a cold front which intensified it and propelled it towards our region. Barack Obama was re-elected President, for better or worse, because he received more votes in the electoral college than did his opponent.

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Christian prayer is not--or at least should not be--an attempt to flatter a capricious deity into giving us what we want. Instead, it is a chance to enter into relationship with the Triune God who, as Parent, Child, and Spirit, always exists in and as relationship. True relationship works both ways, which means that in some mysterious way I do not pretend to understand, our prayers have the ability to transform God. But equally important is the fact that we need to be open to being transformed ourselves when we pray. This is the very essence of prayer.

Amen.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Or, as my friend Ruth Ellen and I like to joke, should the plural of Jesus be Jesi?

Anyway, it's been several months since I've posted to this blog, in large part because I've been working full-time and going to school full-time and that combination unfortunately doesn't leave very much time for blogging. I certainly have a number of topics queued up that I'd like to talk about, including but certainly not limited to completing my series on what I want from an Atonement theology.

Tonight, however, this "Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?" quiz I've seen passed around a little on Facebook has caught my attention. I've only been able to answer about roughly half the questions, and many of those only by making major mental caveats. I thought that, in a rare moment of free time, in might be worthwhile spending some time deconstructing the questions I couldn't answer.

Do you believe Jesus was crucified because he was the Son of God who took upon himself the sins of mankind to save the world from God's wrath? Or do you believe Jesus was crucified because he preached radical social change that threatened the powerful and the wealthy?

I believe that Jesus was and is God's Only Begotten who took upon Christself the sins of humankind to save the world. But Scripture is clear that the thing Jesus was saving the world from was death, not God's wrath.

I think that Scripture is also pretty clear that those powerful figures directly responsible for crucifying Jesus felt threatened by Jesus.

Do you believe Jesus was a healer who provided free universal health care to "the least of these," and so should our government? Or do you believe Jesus' statement, "My kingdom is not of this world," means Scripture can't be used to justify universal government health care?

This one was the easiest to answer, because that's not what John 18:6 actually means. Here's the Bishop of Liverpool:
Not only is it impossible to square this with the teaching and activity of Jesus as set out in the Nazareth Manifesto in Luke chapter 4 about healing the sick and liberating the oppressed, these rendered words of Jesus misrepresent what he actually said. The original Greek text has Jesus saying something very different: “My Kingdom is not FROM this world”. In other words, faced with the power and authority of Pontius Pilate Jesus was telling him and the world that his own authority to rule came from God.

Everything Jesus did and taught was about extending the rule of God on earth. It’s there explicitly in the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus calls us to pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom and the doing of God’s will on earth as it is done in Heaven.
So, yeah, universal healthcare is a Christian imperative.

Do you believe that "salvation is found in no one else" besides Jesus? Or do you believe that "God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus" and that Jesus embodies one of many paths to God?

I don't know what "God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus" is supposed to mean, so I can't know whether I believe it or not.

In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus says
I myself am the Way--
I am Truth, and I am Life.
No one comes to the Divine Parent
but through me.
If you really knew me,
you would know the Divine Parent also.
From this point on,
you know the Divine Parent,
and you have seen God.
All who are saved are saved through the power and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There is no salvation outside the Church. The previous two sentences draw on Christian language to express a truth which is universal.

What they do not say, however, is only people who identify as Christians can be saved. I hold the Second Vatican Council's position that "those who seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do [God's] will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too may achieve eternal salvation." In a sense, there is no salvation outside the Church precisely because the true Church of Christ is large enough to contain everybody, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Do you believe Jesus is going to return one day, descending from the clouds with an army of angels to fight the final battle between good and evil? Or are you focused on creating Jesus' kingdom "on earth as it is heaven" and not too worried about who's left behind or whether Jesus is coming back -- or perhaps never even left?

I suppose I don't dogmatically discount the possibility of a literal return, although I'll admit to my share of doubts. But I am a liberal postmillenialist who, yes, is much more focused on being the agents of God's liberatory kindom becoming established upon Earth, for we are, as St. Teresa famously wrote, the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth.

Do you think people who describe Jesus as prophetic mean that he had the ability to see into the future? Or do you think describing Jesus as "prophetic" meant that he was more of a prophet willing to speak truth to power and suffer the consequences?

Okay this is a question of what the word "prophet" means in the context of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And I don't there is any question that "making prophecies" in the sense of seeing the future is simply something that prophets were often supposed to have done, but was not their defining characteristic by virtue of which they gained their prophet status. Rather, a prophet was--and is--simply an intermediary empowered by God to express the will of God to the people. I suppose that "willing to speak truth to power and suffer the consequences" expresses this idea decently enough in a somewhat looser way.

Have you ever asked strangers if they've accepted Jesus as their Lord and savior? Or do you think of evangelism as more helping people in need and hoping they see Jesus in your actions?

As a purely factual question, no, I don't think I've ever asked a stranger if they had accepted Jesus as their Lord and savior, in part because that's such a darned Protestant question to ask! But I don't think either option given really encapsulates what we need Christian evangelism to be, which is a way of articulating what the Church of Christ has to offer to the world in the 21st-century world which doesn't reduce her down to being little more than either just a social justice organization or a Get Out of Hell Free card.

Were you inspired by watching Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" because you thought it showed how much Jesus was willing to suffer to save mankind? Or were you revolted by Gibson's film and thought its long and bloody depiction of Jesus' death reflected Gibson's obsession?

I have not seen The Passion of the Christ. The part where it's based on the writings of a female German mystic intrigues me somewhat, but knowing of "its long and bloody depiction of Jesus' death" and Gibson's prejudices and, yes, obsessions really kills any desire to ever do so. But by the same token, I can't honestly critique something which I haven't seen.

Do you think the most important biblical passage that distills Jesus' message is John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son," and that salvation is determined by your acceptance of Jesus as savior? Or do you think it's Matthew 25: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me," and that salvation is determined by how you treat the poor and vulnerable?

I found this question the most frustrating out of the entire set of ten because it actually asks two very different questions, one about Jesus' message and one about salvation. Let's take the one about Jesus' message first, and then tackle the soteriological one afterwards.

When we look at the overt teaching of Jesus, the things said and done by Jesus of Nazareth as written down by the New Testament, then I think the words that St. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying are a good distillation of that ministry: "Every time you did this for the least of my sisters or brothers or siblings, you did it for me. As often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me."

But! When we look at the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ with the benefit of hindsight, through the lens of the evangelists and the other New Testament authors, a new significance emerges, one that can be seen as being articulated in St. John's words at the beginning of that gospel, a gospel not coincidentally written a good thirty years after St. Matthew's was, giving the early Church time to come to terms with that which was not only explicit but also in implicit in Jesus' ministry: "Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, so that those with faith might not die, but have eternal life."

Both of these messages are true. Both of them find their meaning in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And one of them is not more important than the other. The choice between John 3:16 and Matthew 25 is, of course, a false choice, for they each reflect different but equally important facets of Who Jesus Is. That's why we have four different canonical gospels, after all.

And yet we can see how these two important messages--both of them true--about the significance of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection could lead to a degree of confusion about soteriology. In the passage from St. Matthew's gospel, as in fact is quite common in the synoptic gospels, Jesus seems to be preaching works-righteousness, that human beings will be saved or damned based on their actions in this life:
To those on the right will be said: "Come, you blessed of my Divine Parent, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!"

To those on the left will be said: "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and the fallen angels."
But in fact, this seeming confusion actually stems from the false binary the CNN quiz offers. It actually turns out that both of the possible answers the quiz gives to the soteriological question--both "salvation is determined by your acceptance of Jesus as savior" and "salvation is determined by how you treat the poor and vulnerable"--turn out to be heretical.

For the Calvinist, it should be obvious why this is so. Both possible answers share a certain assumption, that salvation is determined by our actions, whether by our acceptance of Jesus as savior or by our treatment of the poor and vulnerable. But under Calvinism, we actually have no ability to determine our own salvation. It's all determined by God, by God's decision either to extend the free gift of grace or to withhold it.

Of course, I'm not a Calvinist, and under free-will theism, the question becomes a little bit trickier, because under free-will theism, once we have been empowered by God through what is known as prevenient grace, we then gain an ability to determine our salvation or damnation. But it must be stressed that this determination rests solely upon our response to this free gift of grace, and not to any action we are capable of performing by ourselves apart from that gift. So by themselves, neither an acceptance of Jesus as savior nor loving treatment of the poor would have the power to save. Grace, and grace alone, has the power to save. Period.

The classic debate over the role of faith and the role of works is a question of what is known as "justification"--how it is that we become to be considered righteous in the eyes of God. But our justification is really a consequence of our salvation. It is not a precondition for it.

Have you ever rebuked an evil spirit in the name of Jesus? Or do you think the biblical stories of Jesus casting out demons were not literally true but metaphors for Jesus' ability to make broken people whole again?

I don't think I've ever rebuked an evil spirit in the name of Jesus. I think that the gospel accounts of Jesus casting out demons signify the ability of the Christ to make broken people whole again regardless of whether or not they were literally true. I don't see why understanding demons as "merely" metaphorical should prevent someone from rebuking them in the name of Jesus. As an Anglo-Catholic I tend to think that the richer the liturgical life of a religious community, the better, and I don't see any reason why an exorcism can't be a legitimate and spiritually fulfilling ritual. I think there's space for broadening the understanding of demonic possession to include the possibility of it supervening in cases with emprically-discernible causal determinants, without carving out a metaphysical realist niche for possession which I would be unable to see as anything other than superstition.

Do you believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead after his crucifixion? Or do you believe that Jesus' resurrection was symbolic and not dependent on his body rising from the grave?

I think everyone, regardless of whether or not they believe the bodily resurrection was a literal historic event, would agree that the event was symbolic in the sense that it has the capacity to act as a signifier. That doesn't seem like it should be controversial.

I tipped my hand to my own position in my post What I Want from an Atonement Theology: Resurrection Emphasis when I wrote:
I wasn't present at the Empty Tomb, so I cannot testify to what was there. If the Resuurection qua historical event was necessary to reconcile humanity to God, then that's how it happened. But what I can, and as a Christian must, testify to is the importance and indispensability of the bodily Resurrection of the Christ as a spiritual truth.
Note that I'm careful to include the bodily resurrection as part of the spiritual truth of the Risen Christ. Setting the bodily resurrection up against a symbolic one, as the question seems to do, has the capacity to lead us into Gnosticism, where the body becomes undervalued. Instead, the fact that Jesus' physical body was resurrected in the gospel accounts represents a critical element of the spiritual truth the story is signifying, one we ignore at very great peril.

Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

These truths, regardless of whether or not they ever have been or ever will be instantiated in literal historical sequence, are the truths which set my heart alleluia-ing. The choice cannot be one between Jesus as symbol and the Risen Jesus. Jesus always is, and must be, both at the same time.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Just as theology of the Atonement should not treat the Incarnation merely as a necessary prerequisite for the Cross, neither should it treat Easter morning as a mere afterthought, but rather as an integral element of the story of our salvation. Does St. Paul not say,
If Christ is not raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless--and everything you've believed has been just as meaningless. If Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins. (1 Cor. 15:4, 7, The Inclusive Bible)
Now, I don't take this to mean that we necessarily need to understand the Resurrection as a literal event within history--although neither do I deny the historicity of the Resurrection. I wasn't present at the Empty Tomb, so I cannot testify to what was there. If the Resuurection qua historical event was necessary to reconcile humanity to God, then that's how it happened. But what I can, and as a Christian must, testify to is the importance and indispensability of the bodily Resurrection of the Christ as a spiritual truth.

Because of this, I don't think it's sufficient either to "demythologize it to mean only the restitution of faith in the hearts of the disciples," a view Roger Olson ascribes to Bultmann and Tillich. If anything, we need a postmodern, postliberal remythologization of the Resurrection to avoid the dual modernist errors of liberal demythologization on the one hand and conservative hyperliteralism--in truth, its own form of demythologization--on the other. If nothing else, we need to understand the bodily (and we must retain the "bodily" as part of the mytheme, lest we risk Gnosticism) Resurrection of Christ as a profound metaphysical event which eternally alters the relationship between embodied humanity and God regardless of whether that event was instantiated within historical time and space. As the Rt. Rev. David Edward Jenkins is reported to have said, the Resurrection is "not just a conjuring trick with bones," but something deeper and far more mysterious.

And it is this understanding of the profundity of the Resurrection that I believe it is vitally important to bring with us to our understanding of the Atonement. In some understandings of the Atonement, the Resurrection seems to be little more than a divine encore--after doing the really difficult work of reconciling humanity to God on the Cross, Jesus rises from the dead as one last miraculous work to allow the disciples to go home feeling satisfied. This is problematic in many ways, not least because it focuses the moment of redemption within murder and suffering rather than in the promise of new life.

It is out of these sort of concerns that leads Tony Jones to say of the Ransom Captive theory of the Atonement that
it does have the upper hand over PSA [Penal Substitutionary Atonement] in one regard: in the Ransom Captive understanding of the atonement, Christ’s resurrection is central.

The one thing that Satan doesn’t understand is that death cannot vanquish God. That lack of understanding leads to Satan’s downfall, and to the ultimate liberation of humanity from Satan’s clutches.
This is because under the Ransom Captive understanding, the resurrection of Jesus allows God to "trick" Satan and "have his cake (the freedom of the human race) and eat it too (the resurrection of his son)." Of course, both Penal Substitutionary Atonement and the Ransom Captive theory have fairly fatal flaws which I will no doubt consider when we reach Part 5 of this series, on God's authority, but it does show the way in which the presence or absence of a Resurrection emphasis might be used as a criterion in evaluating theologies of the Atonement.

Another theology of the Atonement, somewhat related to the Ransom Captive theory, which also scores high marks in Resurrection emphasis is Christus Victor, which is of course Latin for "Christ the Victor." In this understanding, Jesus' death is not seen as any type of payment, either to Satan or to God the Parent, except perhaps in a highly figurative sense. Instead, by moving into death and embracing mortality fully, and then moving on to new life in the Resurrection, Christ victoriously breaks the hold death and sin have over all of humanity. The problem, insofar as there is one, is that, as Wikipedia notes, "the Christus Victor view of the Atonement is not so much a rational systematic theory as it is a drama, a passion story of God triumphing over the Powers and liberating humanity from the bondage of sin."
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
It's been a while since I've posted an entry in my "What I Want From an Atonement Theology" series, but I have not forgotten it! I'm still very interested in articulating just what I'd like to see in a theology of atonement, and then perhaps thinking about just how a theology might manage to fill those requirements.

And one of the important--I was tempted to say "most important," but really all of the criteria I specified at the beginning of this project are pretty critically important--requirements which I have for an atonement theology is that it treat the Incarnation not merely as a necessary prerequisite for the Cross, but recognize that "Incarnation is redemption."

You might remember that I actually preached on this in my sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name:
[There is] a tendency we sometime see in some parts of Christianity to view the Incarnation as a mere prerequisite to the Cross, something God had to do in order to accomplish the plan of salvation just as it might be necessary for a high school student to take Algebra I before she can take Algebra II. Roger Olson speaks of it as a “rescue mission”: “its only purpose being to get God the Son onto the cross to change God’s attitude toward us from wrath to love. This,” Olson says, “does not take the truth of the incarnation seriously enough.”
I contrasted this with a Franciscan understanding of the Incarnation as articulated by Fr. Richard Rohr:
For Francis and the early Franciscans, "incarnation was already redemption," and the feast of Christmas said that God was saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of his Son in our midst. If that were true, then all questions of inherent dignity, worthiness, and belovedness were resolved once and forever—and for everything that was human, material, physical, and in the whole of creation. That's why Francis liked animals and nature, praising the sun, moon, and stars, like some New Ager from California. It was all good and chosen and beautiful if God came among us "as Emmanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
What are the implications of this understanding of the Incarnation as "already redemption" on how we view the Atonement? What happens when we view the Cross through the lens of the Incarnation instead of vice versa?

Jesus' death was an inevitable consequence of the Christ becoming human, of sharing our mortal nature. Whether it was at 33 years old on the Cross, or as an elderly person on a deathbed, Jesus was always going to die. That's part and parcel of being human, an inescapable result of the kenotic process described in the early Christian hymn quoted by St. Paul in his letter to the Phillipians:
Christ, though in the image of God,
didn't deem equality with God
something to be clung to--
but instead became completely empty
and took on the image of oppressed humankind:
born into the human condition,
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled--
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! (2:6-8, The Inclusive Bible)
By emptying Christself and becoming human, Christ doomed Christself to death. So it seems to me that the question of the Cross is: in what ways, if any, does Jesus' violent death on a cross accomplish something that a death in bed from natural causes at age 90 would not have? I think the hymn above implies an answer in its phrase "death, even death on a cross!" Crucifixion is, in a sense, the sine qua non of deaths, dramatically underscoring what it means to be mortal, to be subject to suffering and ultimately to death. Jesus' experience on the Cross was what every human being faces in death, only more so. "Jesus' cry from the cross—'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'—shows that in the crucifixion, God experienced the most human of all feelings: the absence of God. In so doing, God bridged the gap that sin had caused between us," writes Tony Jones, explicating the view of the atonement held by theologian Jürgen Moltman.

In The Crucified God, Moltman writes--quoted by Tony Jones here--that it is on the Cross that Christ takes upon Christself "the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and godforsaken can experience communion" with the Christ. That's the sort of insight that I think a theology of the atonement has to take into account if it is to properly understand the Cross in light of the Incarnation, rather than simply understanding the Incarnation in light of the Cross, as has been lamentably more common within Western Christianity.
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios

My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


Find Cole J. Banning



Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sunday, 26 October 2014 02:55 am

Style Credit